People can be trained to “see” letters of the alphabet as colors in a way that simulates how those with synesthesia experience their world, a new study has shown for the first time.

The University of Sussex research, published in Scientific Reports, also found that the training might potentially boost IQ.

Synesthesia is a fascinating though little-understood neurological condition in which certain people, estimated at around 1 in 23, experience an overlap in their senses. They “see” letters as specific colors, or can “taste” words, or associate sounds with different colors.

Nature or Nurture?

A critical debate concerns whether the condition is embedded in our genes, or whether it emerges because of particular environmental influences, such as colored-letter toys in infancy.

While the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, psychologists at the University’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science devised a nine-week training program to see if adults without synesthesia can develop the key hallmarks of the condition.

They found, in a sample study of 14, that not only were the participants able to develop strong letter-color associations to pass all the standard tests for synesthesia, most also experienced sensations such as letters seeming “colored” or having individual personas. For instance, “x is boring,” “w is calm”.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the study was that those who underwent the training also saw their IQ jump by an average of 12 points, compared to a control group that didn’t undergo training.

Cognitive Boost

Dr Daniel Bor, who co-led the study with Dr Nicolas Rothen, says:

“The main implication of our study is that radically new ways of experiencing the world can be brought about simply through extensive perceptual training.

The cognitive boost, although provisional, may eventually lead to clinical cognitive training tools to support mental function in vulnerable groups, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder children, or adults starting to suffer from dementia."

Dr Rothen adds:

“It should be emphasized that we are not claiming to have trained non-synesthetes to become genuine synesthetes. When we retested our participants three months after training, they had largely lost the experience of ‘seeing’ colors when thinking about the letters. But it does show that synesthesia is likely to have a major developmental component, starting for many people in childhood."

Daniel Bor, Nicolas Rothen, David J. Schwartzman, Stephanie Clayton, Anil K. Seth. Adults Can Be Trained to Acquire Synesthetic Experiences. Scientific Reports, 2014; 4: 7089 DOI: 10.1038/srep07089

Photo: Garry Knight/flickr

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